Sometimes a playwright can be a little too close to the material.
In Matthew Lombardo’s two-act drama “High” – running through Sunday at the Curran Theatre – Sister Jamie (raspy-voiced Kathleen Turner, with a blond ponytail and an admirable tough-girl stance) is ordered by a priest, Father Michael (Tim Altmeyer), to rehabilitate a 19-year-old junkie, Cody (Evan Jonigkeit).
He was found in a motel room with a dead, underage boy. The priest has personal reasons for wanting to protect Cody.
But Jamie knows, even before meeting the kid, that he needs more help than she can offer. However, the priest thinks she’s perfect for the task – she’s a recovering alcoholic herself, and formerly homeless, so she should be able to understand Cody and, as he says, help him replace compulsion with faith.
Although she’s obliged to try to counsel the hostile, sullen teenager, Jamie continues to believe she can’t help him — she’s still struggling with her own demons – and to try to convince the priest to turn him over to the law. The arguments between the two of them get redundant fairly quickly.
The counseling sessions don’t reveal much more than a sad picture of Cody’s horrific past and his present misery. At one point, Cody, who swears he’s off drugs, has a relapse, with results that feel contrived and sensational. Rob Ruggiero, directing for maximum drama, allows Jonigkeit to chew the scenery throughout the play.
Interspersed are Jamie’s monologues to the audience, relating prosaic tales of her own Catholic upbringing, plus a few conversations with God.
Now that she’s clean and sober, her main addiction is for profanity, a device written in to garner cheap laughs.
Turner has created an appealing character, but that’s not enough to make the play emotionally engaging.
Lombardo writes, in a program note, that he’s five years out from a crystal-meth addiction that almost killed him. This play, he says, is “a testament to the power of faith and the belief in miracles.”
“High” tries to examine feelings of shame and helplessness and the longing for redemption. But perhaps because of Lombardo’s so recent recovery, it lacks a certain critical distance that might inspire fresh insight. We need deeper thoughts on the topic, and a more imaginative approach to exploring it.
For now, though, this exchange is an example of what Lombardo offers: “Father, how does anyone live with so much pain?” says Jamie plaintively. “Some people have more faith,” replies the priest.
Presented by SHN
Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $30 to $100
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com